Playground for the rich: Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai. Photo: Alessandro Rizzi/Luz/Eyevine
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The Chinese golf courses that don’t officially exist

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. 

The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream
Dan Washburn
Oneworld, 316pp, £12.99

 

Zhou Xunshu grows up in a very poor village in China, tending the family oxen. Without knowing anything about the sport, he becomes a security guard at a posh golf course. He falls for the game. Training secretly, he turns himself into a golf pro and coach. He buys a flat in Chongqing, a city that grows by the day. Then he returns to the village to persuade his aged peasant parents to come and live with him.

The parents aren’t keen to move. Over food, tobacco and corn wine, they argue the matter into the night. “The conversation droned on,” writes the American journalist Dan Washburn in one of the best passages of his book on golf in China. These were “different versions of the same arguments that had been made hundreds of times before” – or more accurately, taking a pan-China view, millions of times.

At 2am, the father finally agrees to move. The next day, writes Washburn, the parents “stuffed their most important belongings into plastic rice sacks and cardboard fruit boxes. They didn’t pack photos or family heirlooms – they had none of these. They packed sugar, preserved pork, heads of garlic . . .” (Washburn is a little too fond of detail.) The next thing they know, they are sitting on Zhou’s sofa in Chongqing, watching TV.

The Forbidden Game uses golf – a game that most in the country probably still know nothing about – to gain a rare insight into ordinary Chinese lives. Washburn, the managing editor of the Asia Society in the US, was a reporter in China when he began covering golf tournaments. A Stakhanovite worker, he spent years trekking to the least glamorous corners of the country and has ended up with interlinked portraits of three men touched by the rise of golf in China.

One is Zhou, the journeyman pro. The second is Martin Moore, an American builder of golf courses who ended up in China because that’s where courses were getting built. And the third is Wang Libo, “a lychee farmer on China’s tropical Hainan Island”, whose life changed after a developer chose Wang’s village as the site of the world’s largest golf complex.

Golf proves an excellent lens through which to view contemporary China. That’s partly because, in a very Chinese way, the boom in golf course construction was illegal and officially never happened. The courses eat up farmland and are stages for ostentatious displays of wealth, often by government officials. The sport conveys wealth and ease in China in a way that it doesn’t any more in the west. That is why many new Chinese rich are keen to live on golf resorts.

Indeed, most golf courses in the country are built chiefly in order to sell luxury homes. Washburn quotes a billboard for golf villas with the slogan “Leading the dance of business philosophy, one villa can conquer the world”. (Professionally, golf remains a minor sport but some young Chinese golfers, often from rich backgrounds, are attracting international notice – especially Guan Tianlang, who at last year’s US Masters, aged 14, became the youngest player to make the cut in a major championship.)

The rich man’s game is embarrassing to the Communist Party, especially when played by officials with “golf tans”, and so Beijing issues periodic edicts against the building of new courses. These edicts rarely affect what happens on the ground. Washburn quotes a typically excellent Chinese proverb: “The mountain is high and the emperor is far away.” Local officials like selling land for golf courses because they personally pocket much of the proceeds. Washburn explains that, in a residue of communism, “The government owns all land in China; villagers just lease it.” Those who lose their land typically get fobbed off with small sums.

Golf is just one of the forces driving them off their land. Many peasants are understandably upset. “Of the 187,000 mass demonstrations reported in China in 2010,” Washburn writes, “65 per cent were related to disputes over land.” One American golf-course worker describes a typical protest: “They always come out with their machetes. There’ll be 30 little women and they’ll all start screaming Hainanese and shaking their machetes and yelling at you.” Generally, the bulldozers win.

The conflicts are particularly acute in Hainan, which Beijing hopes to convert into a Hawaiian-style tourist paradise with lots of golf. A course developer offers villagers payouts for their ancient houses. Wang Libo takes the money. He opens a little shop to feed the labourers who have come to staff the new complex. The shop thrives. Soon, he opens a restaurant. Like the golfer Zhou, Wang gains a shaky foothold in China’s middle classes – a slice of the “Chinese dream”.

In probably no other country have ordinary people’s lives changed so much in the past 30 years. Here, the difference between a person’s childhood and adulthood is often almost unfathomable. It is hard to feel nostalgia for the country the Chinese have left behind. Zhou’s father-in-law recalls how, as a child in Mao’s China, he was sometimes “so constipated from not eating enough fibre that his father had to use a finger to dig the faeces out of him”. No wonder that “Ni chi fan le ma?” – which translates as “Have you eaten?” – remains a common greeting in China.

But inevitably, with all the changes, much has been lost. The environment is being destroyed. For the Hainan golf complex, the developers cut down a mountain and turned it into a lake. In Wang’s village, those who accepted compensation for their homes and those who didn’t stop talking to each other. In almost too perfect a closing set piece, Wang sits under the phoenix tree where villagers used to gather every evening and muses: “I had thought that the volleyball matches would continue no matter what development came here. I never thought things like chess or even just nighttime chatting between villagers would disappear so quickly. And I think in the near future all of the old stone houses will be replaced.” Zhou’s parents are even less fond of progress: after just a fortnight in Chongqing, they flee back to their village.

This book is probably worth the years Washburn put into it and the nights he spent sharing cheap hotel rooms with Zhou on China’s golf tour. You just wish he were a more natural stylist and storyteller. He knows that a book needs characters so he has tracked them like a stalker and he diligently slathers on the colour. No detail is omitted: “It was brutally hot – reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), with 82 per cent humidity – and Zhou slogged his way through the front nine. He was two over at the turn . . .” American writers tend to over-research; the British do the opposite.

Washburn’s stories meander. But they lead, eventually, to an illuminating portrait of modern China.

Simon Kuper’s books include “Soccernomics” (HarperSport, £8.99), co-written with Stefan Szymanski

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser